Why, What, How: Three Questions We Need to Answer about Culture Change | From the Ombuds

DEC. 12, 2022

As we hurtle toward the end of the semester, people are busy, but I would like to take a moment to share something that should be timely.

My most recent post, on how Mary Rowe’s concept of microaffirmations might have a place in shifting culture, generated more interest than anything I have written in this space yet. It’s just anecdotal, but people all over campus have let me know that they found something valuable and thought-provoking in the concept of microaffirmations. So it seems that people are open to changing the culture. But as we’re considering the best way to change the culture, I would like to explore three things: Why we want to change, what we want to change, and how we will know when we have changed it.

First, it makes sense to describe what we mean by culture in an organizational context. Schein (1995) defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions…that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel” in relation to internal and external problems.

Seems easy enough. But because there are constantly new internal and external challenges, culture must constantly change. All sorts of colorful military and sports analogies abound, but I’ll try one from the classroom. A pedagogy that was perfectly calibrated to a small liberal arts college circa 1980 might not be the best fit for a metropolitan research university in the third decade of the 21st century. I’m not saying that we should move our lectures to TikTok, but it seems easy to see that, to meet changing conditions, one’s approach should change.

I’m not breaking news by noting that the past few years have seen a whirlwind of social, cultural, economic, and political change on a global level. And, closer to home, UNLV had changed quite a bit as well—our elevation to R1 status is but one example. Looking at the broader picture of higher education., we are in the midst of a massive shift that we have a chance to be on the right side of, unlike other institutions who will not be as will situated demographically or structurally to adapt to continuing changes in higher education. But we won’t get there by standing still.

The question is, then, how do we change a culture? Culture seems so nebulous, permeating everything around us yet seemingly invisible when we have to identify specifics. But culture can be, if not always quantified, analyzed. Health systems scholar Russell Mannion identifies three layers of culture. The first layer is composed of artifacts, which can include the physical layout of a workplace, job titles, and ceremonies: who gets which office, and who works remotely. Another example—our own annual Faculty Length of Service Recognition Program communicates that, as an organization, we place a premium on full-time rather than part-time service, at least when it comes to this kind of acknowledgement.

The second of Mannion’s levels of culture is filled with “beliefs and values,” which are “the social principles and moral and ethical codes and standards that members believe have intrinsic worth.” While often unwritten, they can be articulated in writing, as is the case with UNLV’s campus values. When an organization’s processes and practices don’t align with these values, implicit or explicit, they become only words with no real meaning. Being told one thing and shown another leads to charges of hypocrisy and a resigned (or opportunistic) cynicism throughout the community. So while values aren’t as tangible as artifacts, they play an important role in how we work in organizations, and are a key layer of culture.

The third level of culture is made up of “basic assumptions,” which, often beyond the range of conscious thought, form our internalized beliefs about the world around us. Mannion refers to “the often unconscious and unexamined expectations, perceptions, and presuppositions shared by organizational members that underpin day-to-day work.” These fundamental assumptions might not be spelled out anywhere, which makes them difficult to confront when seeking to change a culture. Still, when something goes against our basic assumptions, we will something is off.

The best model for change would look at all three levels by examining our artifacts to see if our stated beliefs are bolstered (or hampered) by the physical realities of our surroundings and our rituals. To the extent that our current artifacts don’t make it easier to deliver on our values, they should be changed. Likewise, we should explore our own assumptions, asking whether they are reasonable expectations in current circumstances or not. This huge undertaking will take both organizational and personal introspection. And, when doing anything, we can ask ourselves if it aligns with our professed values and beliefs.

Campus leaders play a valuable role in changing culture by enunciating what we are changing to and why. But to be meaningful, the change has to happen at the ground level. That means each of us plays a part. Whether you find that a burden or an opportunity depends on your perspective, I suppose, but I think that it is empowering: we have the power to change our environment, even if it is just in small ways that few people see.

The last question for today is, how do we know when the culture has changed? Formal assessments may have a role, but I think that we will really know that there is a genuine shift when, reflecting Schein, we begin to teach new members of the organization that this, rather than what came before, is “the way.” It will just become the culture, and only those who knew the old one will be aware that anything has changed.

A better culture, I think, will mean higher levels of happiness and satisfaction throughout campus, and is something I am not going to stop striving for.

In the meantime, whether you are a student, faculty member, or other UNLV employee, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any conflict you might be facing. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop.  If you would like to talk privately and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. You might even find yourself receiving a microaffirmation.

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